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Mexicolore contributor Anna Stacy

RESOURCE: Ancient Maya music

We are most grateful to Anna Stacy for this excellent introduction to the musical instruments played by the ancient Maya. Stacy is a sophomore student at Brown University (USA). Because she’s interested in learning about how people work, she is pursuing a dual major in neuroscience and anthropology. Outside of class, she is an avid musician, actress, and graphic designer. This is (with Anna’s permission) a simplified and abridged version of an article she wrote (link below) in The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology in 2014, entitled Of the Same Stuff as Gods: Musical Instruments among the Classic Maya.

Pic 1: Musicians in procession, Bonampak Temple mural, Room 1
Pic 1: Musicians in procession, Bonampak Temple mural, Room 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Maya of Mexico and Central America have performed music for over 2,000 years. During the Classic period, music played an important role in warfare as well as in communicating with gods, ancestors, and other spiritual beings. Being by nature short-lived and temporary, vocal music does not leave enough of a trace to be studied intensely in a culture with little written record of its musical practices.
Although the specific sounds of Maya music are impossible to recover completely, I will demonstrate through the study of musical instruments, ceramic vessels and the Bonampak murals that sufficient archaeological evidence exists to interpret the meaning and cultural significance of Maya music.

Pic 2: Part of a mural by Rina Lazo showing the ancient Maya arts of writing, astronomy (using cross-sticks to observe the night sky) and music & dance; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: Part of a mural by Rina Lazo showing the ancient Maya arts of writing, astronomy (using cross-sticks to observe the night sky) and music & dance; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Background
Classic Maya (250-900 CE) culture can be described as one of high prosperity and power in ancient Mesoamerica. It was a time of intense urbanization, construction, and agricultural advancement. During this age, a hieroglyphic writing system was created, as were the iconic step-pyramids. The Classic Maya declined at the end of the 9th century, possibly due to drought or overhunting. Like texts from other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztec or Mixtec, Maya writings were destroyed by European explorers in the Colonial period in the early 16th century. This destruction went hand-in-hand with the repression of the hieroglyphic written language of the Maya. The four surviving codices were most likely painted just before, if not during the Conquest. Therefore the remaining written sources are the monuments and ceramic vessels from the Maya’s Classic era.

Pic 3: Massacre of Mexica musicians by the Spanish at Tenochtitlan, May 1520; Codex Duran fol. 29a
Pic 3: Massacre of Mexica musicians by the Spanish at Tenochtitlan, May 1520; Codex Duran fol. 29a (Click on image to enlarge)

Musical Instruments of the Classic Maya
According to Duran in The History of the Indies of New Spain, musicians were the first ones killed, followed by dancers, during the massacre of Mexica (Aztec) nobility in the early stages of the Spanish Conquest (picture 3). The conquistadores destroyed all musical instruments they could find because “they were from the devil”. Though we have no documentary evidence to prove it, we have every reason to imagine they did exactly the same thing in the case of the Maya. While we’ve come a long way in deciphering Maya hieroglyphic carvings, Maya sounds have yet to be deciphered. However, artifacts have survived that reveal much about Classic Maya music. Polychrome vases still exist very much intact, catalogued in a rollout photography database by Justin Kerr. These vases depict scenes of the life of the Maya people. The Bonampak murals of Chiapas, Mexico tell the story in three acts of a celebration and ritual sacrifice. These vessels and murals, which prominently depict musicians, along with pieces or whole musical instruments from the Classic period, can be used to explore the music of the Maya.

Pic 4: Roberto Velázquez Cabrera demonstrates how to play a Maya gourd trumpet
Pic 4: Roberto Velázquez Cabrera demonstrates how to play a Maya gourd trumpet (Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps the most noticeable instrument in Maya vase paintings is the trumpet. Trumpets, called hom-tahs, could be made of wood, clay, or gourd (picture 4) and were shaped like the modern didgeridoo with large bells on the end. Wooden and gourd hom-tahs had flat, circular mouthpieces, occasionally tempered with beeswax to create a seal against the lips of the player. Clay trumpets featured conical mouthpieces similar to those of the modern French horn, with cup shaped inner and outer rims. The bodies of clay trumpets were occasionally curved and were often shorter than those of wood and clay trumpets.

Pic 5: Trumpet players process with other Maya musicians; Bonampak Temple mural, Room 1
Pic 5: Trumpet players process with other Maya musicians; Bonampak Temple mural, Room 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

In his scientific analysis of Maya trumpets, Roberto Velázquez Cabrera from the Virtual Research Institute Tlapitzcalzin discovered a common fundamental sound frequency for these trumpets (between 144 and 139 Hz). Because these instruments were of different lengths, one may conclude that they were designed with pitch interaction in mind (ie a mix of similar sounds) rather than absolute tuning. As a result, beat frequencies and infrasonic phantom sounds (tones below the normal range of human hearing) were produced if more than one trumpet was played at a time, creating sounds that were sensed, but not always heard.

Pic 6: A ruler carried in a litter is accompanied by trumpeters and a dog, Kerr K6317
Pic 6: A ruler carried in a litter is accompanied by trumpeters and a dog, Kerr K6317 (Click on image to enlarge)

In Justin Kerr’s database of Maya ceramic vases, as well as on the Bonampak murals, trumpeters are usually depicted playing in a group (eg, picture 6), rather than alone. As a result, wood and gourd hom-tahs must have been responsible for creating a background soundscape rather than a melodic line.

Pic 7: This elaborately decorated conch shell bears the face of a Maya king; Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas
Pic 7: This elaborately decorated conch shell bears the face of a Maya king; Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas (Click on image to enlarge)

Trumpets were also constructed from conch shells. Conch trumpets are blown through a hole cut at the apex of the spire. Maya conch trumpets have three small holes which produce three consecutive notes. The shells were often incised with decorative bands.
Whistles and flutes, however, were decorated more intricately, with carved figures as well as pigments (eg picture 8). Maya flutes had fipples, or duct mouthpieces like those of recorders. Occasionally, Maya flutes had multiple chambers, such as a two-chambered flute found recently by Donald Slater in the Yaxcabá region. Figurines often acted as chambered whistles, as in those of Jaina Island.

Pic 8: Bird flute; Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pic 8: Bird flute; Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Click on image to enlarge)

Pitch was controlled either by covering finger-holes or by changing the amount of air blown into the instrument. In Veracruz, a tubular whistle of the Late Classic period was found with no finger-holes. Instead, a ball of clay travels the tube when tilted up or down to alter the pitch, as in a modern slide whistle. Flutes with finger-holes had notes on the pentatonic scale.
Flutes and whistles with similar timbre and tuning to those discovered in Classic Maya sites continue to be used in modern Maya cultures. According to J. Kathryn Josserand and Nicholas A. Hopkins, the traditional sacred music of modern Maya villages in Chiapas “employs a sort of flute... and a cylinder drum with a leather head, as well as a turtleshell drum, which is tapped with rocks” (Josserand and Hopkins 2005: 410).

Pic 9: Playing a tortoise-shell drum with deer’s antlers
Pic 9: Playing a tortoise-shell drum with deer’s antlers (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Classic period, turtleshell drums were beaten with deer hooves or antlers (picture 9); some versions consisted of an animal skin stretched taut over an empty turtle carapace. The other two common types of Maya drum were the tunkul - a long horizontal wooden slit-gong similar to the Aztec teponaztli, and the pax, a wooden vertical war drum resembling the Aztec huehuetl. The large pax was meant to be played stationary rather than marching, as opposed to smaller, sometimes pot-bellied, hand drums that could be held in the crook of an arm, allowing the player to shake rattles in the other or to dance while wearing belts with shell tinklers to add to the general percussion soundscape.

Pic 10: The musicians (centre and right) are playing a rasp drum (centre) and a huge jaguar-shaped scraper (right); Kerr K5233
Pic 10: The musicians (centre and right) are playing a rasp drum (centre) and a huge jaguar-shaped scraper (right); Kerr K5233 (Click on image to enlarge)

At once a percussive and string instrument, the rasp drum was depicted only once in surviving Maya art (picture 10). Vessel K5233 shows “A ruler dancing while looking into a mirror. He is accompanied by two musicians who play a stringed instrument and a rasca” (Kerr 1996). Both rasp drums and rascas (scrapers) are friction instruments, though the rasca is an idiophone (an instrument that produces sound by vibrating without the use of a string or membrane, such as a musical saw) while the rasp drum is both a chordophone (string instrument) and membranophone (drum). Instruments similar to the rasca are common throughout the early world and are played by running a bow-like stick across a non-sounding object – in the case of the rasca, an empty gourd. The rasp drum, however, is more peculiar in that no chordophone was known to have existed in Pre-Columbian America prior to its discovery.

Pic 11: Close-up of the rasp-drum player (detail from K5233 vessel, above)
Pic 11: Close-up of the rasp-drum player (detail from K5233 vessel, above) (Click on image to enlarge)

The rasp drum falls into two groups of friction instruments because it consists of both a drum head and a bowed string. The string was stretched between the drum head and a stick to keep it tense while a notched stick was pulled across the stretched string (picture 11). The rasp drum accompanied dance (as shown by the dance posture of the musician in K5233) and was played while singing (as shown by the speech scroll). James Blades postulates that due to “the rather unearthly character of its sound”, the rasp drum was used in religious contexts. The same may be assumed for the strange sounding trumpets, which, due to their range, produce eerily low sounds.

Pic 12: Part of the mural on the East Wall at Bonampak, Room 2, showing a trumpeter (top right) taking part in a raid scene
Pic 12: Part of the mural on the East Wall at Bonampak, Room 2, showing a trumpeter (top right) taking part in a raid scene (Click on image to enlarge)

Uses of Music in the Classic Maya
The unusual sounding trumpets may have also been used to provoke fear in others, as they are shown to be played in scenes of war. Bonampak Room 2 demonstrates a raid on a small village and capture of prisoners for sacrifice. The enemy is unarmed, which suggests they were taken by surprise. One may conclude that the musicians depicted on the mural, such as the trumpeter (picture 12) were probably silent until the fighting began, as the Maya often attacked amid yells, hisses, rattles, drum beats, and the sounds of conch and wood trumpets. Percussion instruments signalled the start of battle and were joined by wind instruments as the fighting progressed. These instruments served to intimidate the opposition as well as to excite the warriors, both in battle and in a celebratory fashion afterwards.

Pic 13: Musicians accompany a scene of scaffold torture and sacrifice; Kerr K206
Pic 13: Musicians accompany a scene of scaffold torture and sacrifice; Kerr K206 (Click on image to enlarge)

The captives in Room 2 are shown in the north wall to be arraigned for a sacrificial bloodletting ritual. Sacrificial and other ritual performances - often preceded by processions following victories in battle - were usually accompanied by musicians, as shown clearly in several Kerr vessels. Such scenes commonly depict prisoners, blood, decapitated and trophy heads - performed to flutes, drums, conch trumpets, and rattles. K206 depicts one such gruesome scene, involving the torture and sacrifice of a prisoner of war on top of a wooden scaffold, accompanied by flutes and vertical pax vertical war drum (picture 13).

Pic 14: Procession of animal ‘ways’ with drum, turtle shell and rattles; Kerr K3040
Pic 14: Procession of animal ‘ways’ with drum, turtle shell and rattles; Kerr K3040 (Click on image to enlarge)

Music played a similar role in sacrifice as in war, as a means of rousing the participants as well as the viewers. For this reason the music and dance styles of Maya ballgames, which occasionally ended in sacrifice, were very similar to those of war. Autosacrifice, which includes bloodletting, scarification, piercing, and mutilation, constituted a way of communicating with spiritual beings: gods, ancestors, and ways.
In Maya artwork, ways, or the animal spirit counterparts of humans, are often drawn as musicians, particularly in sacrificial scenes. On vessels, armadillo, rabbit, dog, jaguar, insect, deer, and unidentified rodent ways are shown processing while playing drums, rattles, and turtle shells (picture 14). Some vases depict the ways themselves as musicians while others show humans dressed as animals. When performers wore masks signifying a mystic being, they were thought to have undergone a spiritual possession of sorts in which the gods or deities assumed bodily form. Mirror-gazing, another form of godly possession, can be seen accompanied by musicians on some vase scenes, including the one with the rasp-drum (picture 10 - the obsidian mirror sits on the ground).

Pic 15: Flowery song: palace scene with musicians; Kerr K1210
Pic 15: Flowery song: palace scene with musicians; Kerr K1210 (Click on image to enlarge)

Musical instruments were frequently buried in tombs, suggesting music accompanied funerals to ease the passage to the spirit world. Their presence in tombs may also suggest the people they were buried with were very powerful, as music was associated with spirituality. According to Maya religion, spirits and gods enjoyed music in the same settings as humans. They were considered to be made of music as well as fed by it.
God H, the wind god, is the deity most commonly shown playing music, suggesting the Maya were interested in the link between sound and the air. Flowers, as well as the wind and life-breath glyph ik act as symbols for musical instruments and are emblazoned on rattles, drums, and celts (tools). As a result, all three – flowers, ik, and music – are related. Dotted scrolls terminating in floral rosettes are sometimes drawn issuing from the bells of instruments, as in K1210, acting as a visual representation of music. This depiction of flowers demonstrates song’s link to ik, as the flowers serve to represent song itself (picture 15).

Pic 16: Music transcribed by author from figure featured in ‘Chan Kom: A Maya Village’, 1962, Robert Redfield and Alfonso Villa Rojas
Pic 16: Music transcribed by author from figure featured in ‘Chan Kom: A Maya Village’, 1962, Robert Redfield and Alfonso Villa Rojas (Click on image to enlarge)

Many vessel paintings, such as K530, show musical events taking place at the mouths of caves, believed to be access points to the inside of the earth. This subterranean world, the “Flower World”, also called “Flower Mountain” in the Classic Maya, refers to the idea of a floral paradise common across native Mesoamerican cultures. It is the place of ancestral “origin and return” and is related to the sun, bright colors, and music). Many musical instruments have been found in caves.
Because flowers sprout from inside the life-giving ground, flowers, and therefore ik, are linked to Flower Mountain, plants, and the earth. In the modern Maya village Chan Kom, farmers run along the sides of a field to raze the dry brush while performing the “Whistle for the Winds” as an offering to the wind god before the planting season (picture 16).

Pic 17: Replicas of ancient Mesoamerican shrill whistles emitting several close-sounding notes; used by Maya warriors to scare and intimidate the enemy in battle
Pic 17: Replicas of ancient Mesoamerican shrill whistles emitting several close-sounding notes; used by Maya warriors to scare and intimidate the enemy in battle (Click on image to enlarge)

Discussion
Music was seen as an essential means of communicating with the gods and other spiritual beings. Ways, impersonation, cave entrances and mirrors provided entry points to these beings, and music only enhanced these connections.
Music was both food for and a gift from the gods. Music had a role to play in scaring enemies in battle, in sacrifice, religious ceremonies and festivities. Music was enjoyed as much by gods as it was by humans, so song acted as a sort of offering in addition to helping to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Because music was considered a living part of divine beings, to perform it was to summon the gods. To play music was to heighten one’s ability to connect and communicate with gods, and to offer them boundless praise and appreciation.

For the sources and references used by the author, click on the link below to go to the original article...

Picture sources:-
Warm thanks are due to Justin Kerr for his kind permission to reproduce several images from the Mayavase database
• Pix 1 & 5 from Wikipedia (Maya Music)
• Pix 2, 4, 9 & 17: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: image scanned from our own copy of Códice Durán - Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, Arrendedora Internacional, Mexico City, 1990
• Pic 7: from Wikimedia Commons (Maya Conch Shell Trumpet Kimbell)
• Pix 6, 10, 11, 13, 14 & 15: photos © Justin Kerr (Mayavase Database)
• Pic 8: image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Gift of Elizabeth M. Riley, by exchange, 2000. Reproduction of any kind is prohibited without express written permission in advance from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
• Pic 12: image from http://www.tlapitzalli.com/rvelaz.geo/bonampak/troja.jpg
• Pic 16: image courtesy of Anna Stacy.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 28th 2015

Anna Stacy’s full article in Anthrojournal
Wikipedia’s entry on Maya music
‘Music from the Land of the Jaguar’
Detailed scientific analysis of Maya trumpets (tlapitzalli.com)
A comparative study of a Maya friction drum
Justin Kerr’s archive of roll-out photographs
Video: Roberto Velázquez Cabrera shows how ancient (Maya) bird whistles work
Ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter demonstrates how the Maya would manipulate the pitch of the conch shell
Online digital catalogue of ancient Maya wind and percussion instruments ‘Universos sonoros mayas’ (UNAM)
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